We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With six days to go, correspondent Phillip B. Wilson spent a few minutes with three-time champion Johnny Rutherford in Gasoline Alley to talk about the 100th, his place in history and a memorable duel with A.J. Foyt.
Phillip B. Wilson: What jumps into your head when you think about the 100th race?
Johnny Rutherford: The fact that is is 100 years old, this is the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 and it has developed from the beginning and grown in fan popularity. It’s been up and down but now everyone is coming back to remember the place. This is where we all made our names. It’s a great facility and we all love it very much. It has its own character. It will throw you curves that you’ve never seen before. It will present problems or be very good to you, and I’ve had both cases.
PW: I’m watching some of the old races on ESPN Classic. I was watching 1973, when you had the oil problem.
JR: In ’73, I set a new track record and was on the pole. I think I led it for a bit, but had a pit stop and an exhaust header broke. We had to change it out while it was hot, and it was near impossible.
PW: What’s “Lone Star” J.R.’s place here?
JR: Well, obviously a three-time winner, ’74, ’76 and ’80. Just had a great time. I tried real hard to get my silver anniversary, the 25th year running here, didn’t make it, but 24 races here. It’s part of me. It’s what I wanted to do when I first heard it on the radio as a youngster. Now, I’ve succeeded in being in 24 races and winning it three times and having a good record here, it’s part of me.
PW: You’re considered one of the legends of the Speedway. People want your autograph. “J.R.” is synonymous with Johnny Rutherford at IMS. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? You did something?
JR: It is. It’s great to be remembered. It’s eased up a bit with time. The younger generation comes along and they don’t particularly care about the history of this place or anything like that.
PW: You sense that?
JR: I do. I sense that. A lot of people don’t know who A.J. Foyt is. It’s a situation of education, of them learning what this place is all about, what it has meant to a lot of us for 100 years.
PW: I think some of the greats who didn’t race longer. I get sentimental, not just about Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson but I think of Bill Vukovich. I think of Jimmy Clark. I think of some great names you raced against. I think of Lloyd Ruby, who was a hell of a driver but probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Parnelli Jones only won the “500” once, but people mention him along with you, Foyt and Unser among the great drivers.
JR: Parnelli was the first one to break the 150 mph barrier.
PW: Then Tom Sneva went over 200 mph.
JR: That was the next step. We were very close (to 200 mph) with the McLaren. I had practiced at three or four times at over 200 mph. We thought we had it and could do that. We tried very hard. The day was different, so the car was a little different. It didn’t feel as stable as it had when I did the 200s. In fact, we were the first to ever unofficially go 200 here. We were disappointed when we didn’t. I had a 199 lap into four and a 198 average.
PW: At the time, that was a big deal?
JR: It really was. We had (IMS announcer) Tom Carnegie really yelling about that. “It’s a new-w-w tr-a-a-ck record!” This place has got so many stories, characteristic times in its history, what it does and has done, what it does for you and what it keeps you from doing. If it hadn’t rained in ’75, I could have been the first three-in-a-row winner, but it didn’t happen and that’s just the way it goes.
PW: There have been so many like that. What would have happened if this didn’t happen?
JR: Yes, shoulda, coulda, woulda.
PW: Mario Andretti is still talking about the “500” races he could have won.
JR: He could have been a six-time winner here.
PW: Is there anybody in particular you miss when you come back to the Speedway?
JR: There are a lot of friends you develop over the years here. You always look forward to seeing them and going to dinner when you get back here for the month of May. There are so many, it would be hard to single out anyone in particular. Those who have been there and done that, the Foyts, the Andrettis, the Unsers, we all get together and spend some time together and reminisce and talk about old times.
PW: When you stare at the other men you’re with, your mind has to be aflutter with so many memories? You see A.J. Foyt smashing wrenches. You see Rick Mears, cool as ice. You see Bobby Unser, cocky as always.
JR: (Doing an Unser impersonation.) “Yeah, I’m telling ya, I really, really, really could have done that.” (Stops impersonation.) Al Unser was another cool customer. He just went out and did it. Watch this.
PW: It must be neat just to belong in that group.
JR: Yes. We remember the days when we were here, the way it was, and it couldn’t have been any better than that.
PW: It was scary as hell back then. You survived it. Some people think you were crazy to do that. The cars were blowing up like they were hit by grenades.
JR: If you made it, OK. If you didn’t, it was part of the game.
PW: You couldn’t get caught up in that?
JR: No, we couldn’t.
PW: The cars today are so safe.
JR: Yeah, but it’s still dangerous.
PW: Back to the time you came from, how crazy it must have been, huh?
JR: People often ask me what it’s like to drive one of those Indy cars at over 200 mph? My stock answer is, “First off, you’ve got to really want to.” If you don’t, you shouldn’t be out there.
PW: How did you know that you wanted to?
JR: The first time I saw a midget car run around a quarter-mile dirt track where we lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was hooked. I wanted to be a race car driver, and I was 9 years old. It was just after World War II. Midget racing was the big thing. It was very popular across the United States. It was really exciting to go see those midget cars running. I made little model race cars and played in the dirt with ‘em when I was even younger than that. This was just something I wanted to do. That was it. It didn’t make a difference what it took to get there. I did it. I raced all kinds of cars and sprint cars were my forte. Just getting there, that was the big thing.
PW: You still look good, like you could still run.
JR: Thank you, thank you. You know getting old isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
PW: How old are you?
JR: I’m 78. It’s another number.
PW: Race Day here on May 29, your favorite day of the year? There’s nothing like it?
JR: No, there’s nothing like it. The Daytona 500 is not like this place, and I’ve run there. I’ve had the opportunity to go to Le Mans and run, but I never did. I was running sprint and stock cars over here, making money.
PW: Do you have a favorite memory at IMS?
JR: There have been so many. The three wins. When asked which one is my favorite, I’ve got to say ’74, my first one. People say, ‘Yeah, winning it the first time, that makes sense.’ No, it’s because I raced A.J. Foyt for a long time in that race and beat him.
PW: He was it? That was the guy everyone measure themselves against?
JR: He started on the pole. He and I were battling for the pole in practice and I thought I had him covered. We blew an engine Saturday morning in practice before qualifying. The guys came back to the garage and did an engine change in 58 minutes, which is some kind of record. We got back out to the line and the official said we had to go back to the end of the line. Tom Binford was the new chief stewart. He interpreted the rules the way he wanted to. So we had to go on the third day of qualifying. That started me in the ninth row in 25th. A.J. sat on the pole. We both had 191 mph speeds. They dropped the green flag and in 12 laps I was running third. The car was magnificent. The McLaren was beautiful. A.J. had just enough power down the straightaway that I could tie him but then I had to back off and give him the race track so I didn’t put him in trouble.
We raced like that for a long time. Finally, I just backed off and said, “You pull me along and I’ll get an opportunity in a little bit.” We made pit stops and he still had the lead. Sure enough, I knew if I kept the pressure on him, I could run him out of a right rear tire or he’d have engine problems. He had the 4-Cam Ford, the V-8 Ford, and I had a turbo Offenhauser. Sure enough, his car started blowing oil. I had to back off and get away from to keep from getting covered up. He was covering my helmet. They black-flagged him, he came in and they wiped it off and he went back out. They black-flagged him and he was out and I went on to win the race. That was the one, racing A.J. was the one, that’s the way it was. It was a good race.